After nearly a decade in Australia, one of the chefs that helped to define the London restaurant scene in the 1990s is returning to the UK. Bruno Loubet is back in town. Joanna Wood went to meet him.
There's a whiff of excitement in the air. Bruno Loubet is back in town. One of London's Zeitgeist chefs of the 1990s is about to start cooking in the capital again - at Clerkenwell's bijou Zetter hotel - after eight years working and living Down Under on Australia's Gold Coast. And everybody - chefs, restaurant critics, and informed foodies - is keen to see if the Bordeaux-born Frenchman has still got what it takes to be a player on the London restaurant scene.
Much has changed since 1992, when Loubet made Soho's Bistrot Bruno into one of the seminal restaurants of its decade in its relatively brief but brilliant existence. For those people who do remember Loubet's glory days, the spice in the present Zetter scenario is that Loubet's restaurant at the hotel will also be a bistro. He will, in fact, be going back to his roots, but without the safety net that continuous cooking in the UK in the noughties might have given him.
He, himself, is undaunted by the prospect of having to prove himself all over again. "Funnily enough, I don't think London has changed so much. Obviously, since I was here there are new restaurants and chefs on the scene but I see a lot of things now on menus that I was doing back then in the 1990s," he says.
But why has Loubet decided to come back to the UK - especially as part of the reason he left London for Australia in 2002 was to forge a better family life for himself, wife Catherine and their three daughters? Sitting amidst the modern-retro chic of the Zetter's current dining room (it will close down briefly for a minor refurbishment by designer-of-the-moment Russell Sage before opening as Bistrot Bruno Loubet on 22 February) he provides the answer. It's a family-led decision again. "My wife's grandmother has been not very well and needs looking after - they're very close - and my eldest daughter wants to work in London," he explains. For the record, he's 48 and his eldest daughter is 24 years old.
In Australia Loubet's original Brisbane restaurant, Bruno's Tables, won critical acclaim and accolades - as did the respected Berardo's restaurant in Noosa under his executive chef leadership when he moved there in 2005 (he later returned to Brisbane to head up another restaurant, Bauguette, prior to coming back to the UK). He was able to afford a big house with a bit of land on which to keep a few ducks, geese, guinea fowl, "even goats", he says, a genuine smile lighting up his face.
"I always loved this kind of life, so when we came back to England I thought, ‘OK maybe it's time to open a pub in the country and have a garden with some chickens'. I didn't want to come back to London," he laughs. But a recruitment consultant friend, Guillaume Rochette, knew that Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan, the Zetter's owners, were on the hunt for a chef to revamp and head up the hotel's restaurant which, unlike the hotel, had never really taken off. The 59-bedroom Zetter, although stylish and savvy, isn't flashy and the duo were searching for an unstuffy, accessible food offering - always attributes associated with Loubet's cooking. On paper he seemed the perfect fit. After a few persistent phonecalls, Rochet set up a meeting between the trio in June last year.
The three of them clicked. Several meetings and five months down the line, a deal was signed that gave Loubet a partnership in a new 80-seat bistro bearing his name at the Zetter. The key moment in establishing whether they could all work together was when Loubet first cooked for Benyan and Sainsbury, both of whom had never eaten his food in the past. "He cooked about eight dishes for us at Mark's house and we just sat there spellbound," recalls an enthusiastic Benyan. "The food was honest, made with great produce, there weren't any foams or smudges. It wasn't just traditional French either, there was a twist to it."
"It's that combination that's so interesting," Sainsbury adds. "And almost coincidentally, it's a theme we've got going on here at the Zetter and in Clerkenwell. Clerkenwell is old London, but it's new as well. At the Zetter we've got old brick walls, old pieces of furniture, but modern architectural interventions as well. So there's a nice synergy going on between Bruno and us."
It's important, at this stage, to say that Loubet's reputation isn't founded only on his time at the helm of a small, mid-spend - albeit celebrated - London bistro of the early 1990s. He really registered on the capital's restaurant radar when he was head chef at the Four Seasons' Inn on the Park at the beginning of the 1990s cooking high-end food. And he turned his hand successfully to Italian cuisine at Oliver Peyton's short-lived Isola restaurant at the turn-of-the-Millennium, immediately before upping sticks and moving to Brisbane, Australia.
However, spend a little time in his company and one undoubted fact emerges. His heart is in cooking authentically social food in a small-to-medium sized restaurant. This is where he is most at home and where his creativity is at its best. His food reaches back to the classical rustic dishes of south-west France, but he has never been afraid to add a little outside influence in to the mix: a North-African or Asian spice here or there, for instance.
"I've always been a little bit different," he concedes. "The main thing in my cooking is French, but why shouldn't you touch that with something else, if you understand the culture that you're experimenting with? I only do something when I understand the culture. And I cook what I like to eat - I don't cook just to be fashionable because somebody famous in New York or wherever is doing something a certain way. I do what I believe in.
"For me a bistro is a place where you can just drop in and have a bowl of soup and a glass of wine - or a three-course meal if you want to. Or a place to go with friends to share food around a big table: somewhere where you can have a really classic dish or something a bit adventurous and different. A good-value place as well. It shouldn't just be a place for chicken liver salad, steak frites and tarte au pommes."
When he talks about food, Loubet's serious face lights up. It defines, absolutely, who he is. A bit like his older countryman, Pierre Koffmann, at whose phenomenally successful Selfridge's pop-up restaurant he first dipped his toe back in to London cooking, last autumn. It's no surprise to learn he'll be at the stove in the Zetter kitchen, rather than just directing operations. "I'm a good old fighter, that's me," he laughs.
He'll be joined in the Zetter kitchen by a brigade of 16 chefs. They'll be cooking an à la carte and menu du jour, a modern take on the old Bistrot Bruno food - naturally. However, the menu du jour will be centred on sharing platters, or, possibly, big terrines of soup placed centre-table from which diners can help themselves.
Expect to see things usually associated with classical fine dining among the core dishes on offer. Lièvre royale, for instance. "Obviously it will be a little simplified, but at the end of the day it will be a beautiful hare dish," Loubet promises. These will sit alongside Loubet trademarks such as boudin blanc with barley and more recently developed creations such as a tuna terrine cloaked in aromatic fat (the beloved Italian ingredient, lardo di collannata), a 21st-century take on surf and turf. "To me it makes sense. Tuna is a fish without fat, so you bring in the fat and end up with a ‘marble' of red tuna and white lard," he explains.
That's enough to whet even the most jaded of appetite. But, having come full circle, will cooking at the Zetter and regaining his position on the London dining scene, be enough to hold him? As ever, time will tell. But the Zetter venture does have a great lure.
Benyan and Sainsbury are up-front about wanting, in due course, to look for a second (possibly even a third) hotel site in London. If the new restaurant is successful, there is the option to extend the Bistrot Bruno Loubet brand in to new properties. "It's obviously something we talked about before we decided to go ahead with the restaurant," nods Loubet. "It's part of the deal, if you want. But we all agree we have to be organic; we don't want to give ourselves dates or limitations. At the moment it's all about, ‘let's do this place, let's enjoy it and let's do something we really believe in'. When it's working well and if we have the opportunity to expand, well why not?"
Bruno Loubet's menus will include starters such as pressed seared tuna and lardo di collannata, green apple purée; guinea fowl boudin blanc, peas, ham and barley; and onion and cider soup, upside-down Emmenthal soufflé. Mains such as confit lamb shoulder, white beans and preserved lemon, green harissa; lièvre royale, onion ravioli, pumpkin and dried mandarin purée; grilled English rib-eye steak, smoked potatoes mousseline, shallots and black bean sauce; butter poached monkfish cheeks, pomme fondant, lemon spinach, mussel velouté; artichoke barigoule, pepper gnocchi, citrus fruits.
A PRIVATE AFFAIR
Zetter hotel owners Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan are responsible for bringing Bruno Loubet back in to London. But they are also expanding the Zetter itself, adding on a private members' club to the boutique hotel. The deal on the site was completed in May 2008.
- Where is it? Just off St John's Square, just behind the hotel itself in two Georgian townhouses.
- Called? Working title is the Zetter Townhouse.
- How big? Spread over four floors - nine bedrooms, three of which are top-floor suites with small kitchenettes for any guests wanting a flexible, semi-self-catering facility - "they'll be like serviced apartments if necessary, or just normal hotel-style suites," says Sainsbury.
- What else? Basement - a 30-40 seat bar; first floor - a 70-80 seat lounge, plus a library.
- Membership rates? Around £300 per annum.
- Room rates? Around £150 per night for a club bedroom.
- Designer? Russell Sage.
- Refurbishment cost? £2m (including small refurb of the Zetter's restaurant prior to relaunch as Bistrot Bruno Loubet).
- Food? Food from Loubet's restaurant will be available at the club, but not in full à la carte menu form - just the menu du jour choice.
RECIPE: DAUBE DE BOEUF PROVENÇALE
Daube comes from daubière, a covered casserole. Estouffade is a stifling or smothering, in a covered casserole. Almost every region of France has its own daubes, estouffades and terrines. Some of them are for a whole piece of braised beef; others are like a Boeuf Bourguignon. In many, the meat is larded, and in most it's marinated in wine with vegetables before the cooking begins.
(serves six to eight)
- 1.5kg beef cheeks or blade
- 500ml dry white wine and 500ml red wine
- 200g carrots
- 250g onions
- 200g celery
- 1 bouquet garni
- 250g well-ripened tomatoes
- 100ml vegetable oil
- Salt and pepper
- 1 litre veal stock or beef stock
- 1tbs flour
- 1tbs Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and black pepper
- 400g roasted red and yellow capsicum
- 100g garlic confit (stewed in duck fat skin on, then peeled)
- 100g black olives
- 300g grilled courgettes
- 1tbs chopped parsley
- 6 leaves of basil
- 30ml virgin olive oil
Sauté the vegetables for the daube in oil until golden brown. When cool, place in a large bowl with the wines and meat. If need be, add water to completely cover the meat by 3cm.
Marinate for 48 hours.
After 48 hours, drain in a colander over a bowl to get all the liquid from the marinade out. In a frying pan, colour the meat well in very hot oil. At the end dust the meat with flour. Cook a minute at low heat then place it all in a cast iron pot and then add the marinade. Bring to the boil. Skim the top, then add the stock. Bring back to simmering point then cover with a tight-fitting lid and place in the oven at 150°C for 2 hours and 30 minutes. Check the cooking. Reduce the cooking liquid if necessary. Add the garnish. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and basil and drizzle some good olive oil over.
LOUBET - THE OUTSIDE VIEW
David Everitt-Matthias, chef-proprietor, Le Champignon Sauvage It's great that he's back. I'd firmly rate him as one of my top three chefs cooking in Great Britain. And he's a chef I'd always seek out, to go and eat his food. His food is full of flavour - quite masculine flavours, nothing poncy. There's always a place for a strong chef such as Bruno in London.
Liz Carter, editor, Good Food Guide The food at Bistrot Bruno was wonderful. It was a long time ago, but at the time it was the hottest restaurant in town. It's the flavours that I remember - Bruno had a very pure attitude to flavour. I can't wait to go and eat at the Zetter. It's a great hotel, but it has never worked as a restaurant. Maybe this hook-up with Bruno is a marriage that has been waiting to happen.
Matthew Fort, food editor, The Guardian I always thought Bruno was a wonderfully intelligent and distinct personality. He straddled the world of traditional French country cooking and haute cuisine at the original Bistrot Bruno and he had a very curious mind - open to influence, to North African spicing, for instance. I would say in many respects that London has caught up with him. It will be absolutely fascinating to see if there are any Australian influences in his cooking.
Chris Galvin, chef-proprietor, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, Galvin at Windows, Galvin La Chapelle I remember eating his food at the Four Seasons - it was one of the best meals I've ever had. And I still remember an assiette of lamb at Bistrot Bruno. He's a "rock god" as far as I'm concerned. I'm looking forward to getting in to the Zetter and eating his food again. Does London need him? Anything that raises the bar is good, I always said that London has room for 50 even 100 good bistros and I still stand by that.
BRUNO LOUBET'S CAREER
Bruno Loubet was born in Bordeaux, south-west France. As a boy he helped to rear poultry and grow vegetables in the family garden. Early chef training was undertaken at the local Lycée Hotelier de Talence in Bordeaux and his first professional job was at the Hyatt Regency in Brussels. In 1982, after doing his French military service (during which he continued to cook), he crossed the Channel to London, working initially at Pierre Koffmann's renowned La Tante Claire before taking up his first head chef position, at Gastronome One in the New King's Road - where he won the Good Food Guide's Young Chef of the Year award in 1985.
A stint as head chef at Raymond Blanc's Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, followed before he then transferred to the original Le Petit Blanc in Oxford as chef-manager in 1986. Returning to London three years later in 1989, he took over as executive chef at the Four Seasons Inn on the Park, earning the restaurant a Michelin star, before going in to partnership with Pierre and Kathleen Condou and opening Bistrot Bruno in Soho's Frith Street in 1992.
The restaurant quickly became the hottest ticket in town and won gongs from the London Evening Standard and The Times - and two years later, at the height of its success, the trio launched a sister restaurant, L'Odeon, in Regent Street and renamed the Frith Street restaurant Bruno Soho. However, the partnership faltered and Loubet severed his links with the Condous in 1997, taking on a series of restaurant consultancies until finally hooking up with Oliver Peyton in January 1998 as development chef of Gruppo restaurants.
In 1999 he launched the 110-seat Isola and 125-seat Oseteria d'Isola in Knightsbridge for Peyton, turning his considerable cheffing skills to cooking Italian cuisine. Although Loubet's cooking was received well, the restaurant complex never really took off and in August 2001 Loubet confirmed his intention to move to Australia.
In 2002, he relocated to Toowong, Brisbane, and opened Bruno's Tables to great local acclaim, picking up a series of recognised Australian food industry awards between 2003 and 2005. Three years later, he took over as executive chef at the highly regarded Berardo's restaurant in Noosa before, eventually, returning to Brisbane as executive chef at Baguette, where he stayed until returning to the UK in 2009.
This month will see the opening of Bistrot Bruno Loubet at London's Zetter hotel in Clerkenwell.